Cell phone communication has always been a problem for music festival goers. With upwards of 90,000 people all gathered in one small area, cell phone towers are often unable to cope with the number of inbound signals, and temporary wi-fi setups are not effective. But where cell towers fail, Firechat succeeds.
First gaining attention in 2014 during Burning Man, and then again in Hong Kong during the government protests there, Firechat is an app that enables people to send and receive messages even when no Internet connection or cellular phone coverage is available. Instead, it utilizes a smartphone's Bluetooth and Wifi capabilities to build what's called a "mesh network" of connected phones. Mesh networks operate by allowing device A to deliver a message to device D by hopscotching through devices B and C to get there, without having to utilize the cell network. Essentially, the more phones in one area, the more phones are able to be daisy-chained to the network as a whole, and the stronger connection.
Now Open Garden, the San Francisco-based startup that developed the app and its technology, are venturing into the live entertainment space with their networking technology by incentivizing artists performing at a two-day festival (the Barcardi NH7 Weekender in India) to use the app to interact with their fans. By working with the event's organizers -- Only Much Louder (OML) -- audiences in the cities of Pune and Delhi will be able to connect through the app to bands like Indian Ocean, The Raghu Dixit Project, and The Reggae Rajahs.
Vijay Nair, CEO of Only Much Louder, organizer of Bacardi NH7 Weekender said: "I am excited that Bacardi NH7 Weekender will be the first festival to enable live interaction through Firechat. It is a great tool for artists to interact with fans and we don't have to worry about traditional networks failing as they tend to do when large crowds are present."
The Bacardi NH7 Weekender's fifth year as one of the largest music festivals in India brought together tens of thousands to see more than 100 bands across six stages in four cities. By organizing a dedicated channel within the app, OML provided attendees with a common digital space to schedule rides and share tips -- really what anybody would do in a crowded festival situation -- without having to wear their cell phone batteries down trying to repeatedly push through unsent messages.
"Hong Kong or Burning Man are both examples of situations where people either have or expect to have no connectivity whatsoever or patchy/unreliable internet/cell phone coverage," Open Garden's CMO Christophe Daligault tells Billboard. "In fact, we had a big jump yesterday [Nov. 20] in Mexico, where Firechat jumped to No. 7 on iTunes because of the student protests."
Firechat works as well as it does thanks to recent improvements in relatively older technology. One limitation of the technology used to be that there wasn't the density of smartphones required to create a functioning network. Another was how limited the range was that Bluetooth afforded. Plus, iPhones and Android devices did not communicate with one another as well as they do today. Now Bluetooth and peer-to-peer wifi can reach 40 to 70 yards, and by utilizing these improved capabilities with the same hardware the phone uses to connect to a wireless network, it is able to create a network out of thin air via peer-to-peer connections.
While the app, and mesh technology as a whole, are still relatively in their infancies, Daligault has his sights set on festivals in the States, where folks encounter the same problem.